I’m a little late to this wrap up, but both professional and personal obligations have occupied a great deal of my time over the past few weeks. The decks are mostly cleared now, so let’s talk soccer.
The lineup for Brazil 2014 is set, and while there are a few minor surprises (in terms of who qualified, who didn’t, and how close / not close some of the contests were) it’s largely the usual suspects. Every team from 1st to 24th in the October 2013 FIFA rankings (which are a debatable measure) save for 20th ranked Ukraine qualified for the finals. The remaining nine teams include 31 through 34, 44, 49, 56, 7 and 59. I guess one could say the inclusion of atypically low ranked Cameroon (59th) is a surprise, but 2014 marks the seventh finals that they qualified for. Iran at 49th could likewise be a pleasant surprise, yet they won a qualification group that included South Korea, giving up only two goals in eight group matches (and scoring only eight). If I had a clue how karma operated, I’d put money on Iran and the USA being in the same group in Brazil (shades of France ’98, and that was an ugly campaign for the USMNT).
There were some surprises in qualification. Mexico, for example, as we know qualified for the CONCACAF – OFC playoff courtesy of a US goal in stoppage time against Panama. To ensure that our rivals to the south indeed qualified for the finals, we added another. I’m not confident that Mexico will take those goals as late payment for a third of their country, but it doesn’t hurt to ask. Bob Bradley’s Egypt got hammered in their final home and away against Ghana. The latter were always going to win that tie, but 6-1 in the first leg was a bit excessive. The UEFA second-place playoffs had the chance to surprise, but ultimately didn’t. Portugal beat Sweden, and Greece knocked Romania out, both by 4-2 aggregate scores. Ukraine took a 2-0 lead over France into the second leg in Paris, where they lost 3-0. Everybody was pulling for Iceland (including, implicitly, Paul Campos), who held Croatia 0-0 at home, only to predictably lose 0-2 away.
One of the more interesting sides in the finals is Bosnia and Herzegovina, not only for the obvious reasons, but also it’s their first finals as an independent country having narrowly won their UEFA qualification group (over Greece on goal differential). I’m not going to expend the energy to measure this, but their group might have been the weakest of the nine: in addition to Greece, competition included Slovakia, Lithuania, Latvia, and Liechtenstein (who somehow drew twice at home, to Latvia and Slovakia).
The USMNT played a couple away friendlies during the international window where the final positions for Brazil were decided. They were unimpressive, drawing Scotland 0-0, and losing to Austria 1-0. Neither result bothered me, as they were missing both Dempsey and Donovan, and Klinsmann used those matches to evaluate some players on the fringe of the team. Perhaps the best impression was made by Stoke City defender Geoff Cameron, playing right back. While Scotland might have been considered a pushover, especially given the 5-1 devastation we meted out to them in 2012, ex-Celtic manager Gordon Strachan has the side playing atypically well.
Argyle Watch: yes, the local XI, who have narrowly avoided relegation from the Football League the past two seasons (and prior to that experienced two successive relegations from the second to fourth division of English football) are 18th in “League 2″ after 16 matches, five points from the relegation zone. I’ll be at Home Park today to watch them likely draw against Dagenham & Redbridge who are sitting seventh. Dag & Red have only been in the Football League itself since 2007, and have only reached as high as the third division for one season, 2010-11, where they met Argyle for the first time in League football (and like Argyle, were relegated).
Finally, a different sport entirely, but the Ashes are back, and England are getting mauled at The Gabba in Brisbane. Australia have an excellent record at The Gabba, so going in I figured the best England could hope for is a draw, but Australia have exposed and exploited England’s weakness against pace bowling. At the close of play today England are 24-2 (already) in their second innings, chasing a target set by Australia of a mere 561 runs following declaring their second innings on 401 for 7.
England will head into the second test of the series down 1-0 unless it rains a lot the next couple of days in Brisbane. But, they only need an aggregate draw of the five test matches to retain the Ashes, so while English cricket fans are not in the best of moods at present, it’s not as though the world has ended for them.